Mark Essay 7: What can we know about Jesus?Mark - Essay 7: The Quest for the Historical Jesus

The Quest for the Historical Jesus is the title given to the translation of A. Schweitzer's review of the historical criticism of the Jesus-story Von Reimarus zu Wrede. The quest began with Reimarus, whose book Von dem Zweck Jesu und seiner Jünger in 1778 made the crucial distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. Perhaps the most important work of the first quest was the Leben Jesu of DF Strauss; he maintained that it is impossible to write a life of Jesus, though he himself was trying it, because the facts are so embellished with myths by the gospel writers. The first quest may be considered to have come to an end with Wrede and Schweitzer. The former centred his view on the messianic secret, that Jesus had not in fact claimed to be Messiah, but that the apostles recognised him as such and proceeded to explain the contemporary failure to recognise him as Messiah by inserting into the story of Jesus a series of prohibitions from the Master which persuaded the disciples to conceal his claim. Schweitzer pushed criticism to another extreme; in 1906 he surveyed the material of the last 125 years and then concluded that Jesus was a noble but mistaken apocalyptic visionary, who expected his death to usher in a new age.

There followed a pause in the Leben-Jesu-Forschung. All attention seems to have focussed on form criticism, whose high priest, R Bultmann, declared in his 1926 Jesus that we can know almost nothing concerning the life of Jesus. For Paul's theology, he maintained, it was necessary to know only that Christ was crucified. In critical circles this remained the prevailing view until Ernst Käsemann's important article in 1953, 'The Problem of the Historical Jesus', which is generally held to have launched the New Quest. The first attempt in the post-Bultmannian era to write a life of Jesus was that of Bornkamm in 1956. Bornkamm's thesis was that one can still discern the unmatched authority of Jesus, who indeed used but transformed the expectations of the Jews, 'The Man who Fits No Formula', as he entitled his second chapter.

This period was characterised by attempts to elaborate criteria for authenticity of the sayings of Jesus. Among these the most important and highly-regarded were those proposed by Norman Perrin, primarily the Criterion of Dissimilarity: only those sayings of Jesus can be securely held to be authentic which show no influence of (and therefore cannot have been spawned by) either Jewish ideas at the time of Jesus or ideas current in the early Church. The limitation of this excessively strict criterion is that it makes Jesus an isolated figure who springs from no background and has no influence! The second criterion, that of Multiple Attestation, has also been important: a saying has claims to authenticity if it is represented in several of the different strands of the NT, e.g. not merely the triple synoptic tradition but also Paul or John or M or Lö an example of this is Jesus' saying on divorce. A third criterion allows as authentic those sayings which cohere with sayings isolated by the first two criteria. [RH Fuller, in The Thomist for 1984, sensibly adjusts Perrin's 'criteria' to 'indices', and prefers the nomenclature 'distinctiveness' to 'dissimilarity']

Other more or less successful criteria were attempted. Since CF Burney's researches into the Aramaic language of Jesus, and attempts to reconstruct the language and semitic rhythms of Jesus' speech, an Aramaic substratum to a saying has often been proposed as a guarantee of authenticity. Opponents, however, point out that all this strictly proves is that the saying arose in a semitic milieu, and that Jesus was not the only memorable teacher in the semitic field in the first century. The same objections hold against the attempt to establish authenticity by means of agricultural imagery; it is said that Jesus had a sharp countryman's eye which enabled him to draw lessons from the ordinary things of the countryside, in a way which would not have been possible for his followers, who were centred almost exclusively in cities of the hellenistic environment (but remember urban foxes!). Allied to the theory of Markan priority this theory is highly attractive, for Mark's imagery is far simpler and more countryfied than that of either Luke or Matthew. It is also, of course, far more restricted and impoverished than the rich and varied imagery of the other two synoptists. And for Matthew, at least, MD Goulder has made out a strong case (in Midrash and Lection) that the Matthean imagery is so consistent that it must be the work of one mind, namely Matthew's. Similarly for Luke Goulder has shown that there is a consistency of method which suggests that the gospel is the work of one mind with no sources other than Mark and Matthew. Both these last suggested criteria may at least count as indices, though not strictly as criteria for authenticity.

Arguments about authenticity raged fruitlessly, almost every saying of Jesus being alternately granted and denied authenticity, until Ian MacDonald could give a paper entitled 'New Quest, Dead End?' in the 1980 Studia Biblica, and Ghiberti could speak in the Münchener Theologischer Zeitung for 1982 of the 'relative stagnation' of the New Quest. Similarly title-Christology seemed to have reached a dead end. In the era of O. Cullmann (1957) and R.H. Fuller (1965) the approach to Jesus had been through his titles; although it was accepted that these were considerably developed in the early communities, there was considered to be a foundation for each in Jesus' earthly life. Doubt was, however, gradually cast upon Jesus' use of one after another of the titles used in the gospel: it seemed highly unlikely that he had claimed the title 'Messiah' for himself; the expression 'son of God' was found to be polyvalent and require a good deal of precising rather than being a straightforward expression of divinity. The expression 'son of man', on which so much had been built, was convincingly claimed by Vermes (Jesus the Jew, 1973) to be on Jesus' lips merely a circumlocution for the first person pronoun, transformed into a title with reference to Daniel 7 only by the evangelists.

In recent years perhaps the most successful attempt to isolate an important direction for Jesus' sayings, leading to his self-consciousness, was made by Seyoon Kim. Building on the work of Stuhlmacher and Martin Hengel, he uses the authenticity of Mk 10.45 to show that Jesus saw himself as the Servant of Deutero-Isaiah. This verse has undoubted allusion to Is 53.10 and 43.3-4 (yuxhn and a)nti pollwn representing the Hebrew naphsho and rabbim, and perhaps lu/tron representing 'asam; it is also tied to Jesus' favoured self-designation as 'son of man' (Fitzmyer, in MTS 20 [1973/4], 393, shows that 4QpsDanAa, dated palaeographically to the last third of the first century BC, suggests that the interpretation was known at the time of Jesus, and so may be part of Jesus' own use of the term. I find the arguments unconvincing; the Qumran text is too fragmentary). The allusions are too delicate for Mk 10.45 to be the product of Gemeindetheologie. The same allusions are present in the well-authenticated words of Jesus at the last supper. This at last gives Jesus' own interpretation of his passion as a vicarious sacrifice. Kim also hold that, combined with the use of 'son of man', Lk 12.32's use of poimnion and basilei/a proves that Jesus saw himself as the personification of the son of man in Dan 7.27, the incarnation of the Chosen People who will gather the nations under his sway.

A new and positive start was made in 1979 with Ben Meyer's The Aims of Jesus, an influential book which makes use of the philosophical insights of Bernard Lonergan. He sees Jesus as continuing the line struck by the Baptist, who preached the arrival of the eschatological judgement, and set out to gather the remnant of all Israel. The specific difference from other eschatological groups such as Qumran is that for John the Baptist this in-gathering involves repentance. By his own baptising Jesus followed the Baptist, but carried his mission further by proclaiming the kingdom for the restoration of Israel, a free gift to the poor and underprivileged. In the 1980s came a new thrust, though it is questionable whether this angle of research is sufficiently different to be called 'The Third Quest'. It consists in looking rather at the actions than the words of Jesus, as being a more secure basis of discerning the basic pattern of his life and ministry.

The Jesus-Seminar in North America found the position so uncertain that they even went as far as to try to establish the authenticity of sayings by majority vote (P. Hollenbach, 'The Historical Jesus Question in North America Today', Biblical Theology Bulletin 19 [1989] 11-22)! In the same vein, discussing the sayings of Jesus, JD Crossan,one of the leading figures in the Jesus-Seminar, can complain (Semeia 44 [1988], 121) that so many clues and emphases have been put forward that one almost despairs of objectivity: Jesus was for or against legal observance, apocalyptic, the gentile mission, temple-worship, political revolt. (His own solution is, nevertheless, typical: he holds that the central point of Jesus' teaching is that we stand naked to God and naked to each other; this is just one formulation among many possible, and carries little authority as the one, exclusive quintessence of Jesus' message). In fact the Jesus Seminar has been widely lampooned by scholars (see Luke T. Johnson, The Real Jesus, and a lively essay in Davis, Kendall & O'Collins (ed.), The Resurrection, a blistering attack on John Dominic Crossan on the resurrection by William Lane Craig, who categorises Crossan's approach as 'simply bizarre' and 'historically irresponsible'.'His entire approach is predicated upon idiosyncratic presuppositions concerning source and methodology which would not be accepted by any other major NT critic' (p. 270). Three important presuppositions of the Jesus-Seminar are that demons do not exist (therefore there are no exorcisms), supernatural miracles are impossible, and that Jesus had no eschatological message. Their most important methodological presupposition is that a reonstruction of Q and the apocryphal Gospel ofThomas arevery early documents, and are at least as important as the synoptic gospels in the reconstruction of the life of Jesus. Consequently Jesus is presented principally as a Cynic preacher.

The most persuasive scenario is provided by Ed Sanders in a series of publications including Jesus and Judaism (1895), Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah (1990), popularised in The Historical Figure of Jesus (1993). Sanders finds the clue to Jesus' activity in his move against the Temple. This is incorrectly named the 'Cleansing of the Temple'. For this Jesus would have used water-symbolism; in any case there is no evidence of the malpractice which Jesus is traditionally said to be correcting and purifying. In reality the overturning of the tables was a symbolic destruction of the Temple and its sacrificial system, in order to bring about a rebirth. It was this action which led swiftly to his execution. It was not, however, an isolated incident, for Jesus' threats against the Temple are deep in the sayings-tradition (it is an acceptable part of the procedure to confirm findings from the sayings-tradition, though not to use the sayings as a starting-point). In what is now the opening of the eschatological discourse (Mk 13.1-4 is not necessarily tied to the subsequent discourse) Jesus predicts that no stone will be left upon another. At his trial this accusation is used, though Mk strangely characterises it as a false charge. The memory of it recurs in the taunts by his opponents while he hangs on the Cross. Although Jesus' own action in the Temple can only have been symbolic (any more would have provoked immediate reaction from the Temple staff), his attitude would have been enough to provoke not only action by the authorities but also hostility from the populace, to whom the Temple was the sacred centre of their life.

If this incident is genuinely the clue to Jesus' thinking, it must link positively with the whole of his mission. Sanders sees it as part of Jesus' thrust towards an eschatological renewal of Israel. The old order is to be superseded and Israel renewed. Not only in the later Old Testament but also strongly in the inter-Testamental writings, the rebuilding of the Temple is symbolic of the restoration of the community of Israel. According to Sanders Jesus had no very clear idea - nor did he need to have - either of what form this renewal was to take, or of what part he himself was to play in it(1)

. He simply knew that the old order was to be destroyed and that God was present in his own ministry, bringing this about. Paul's earliest expectation is that the restoration will take place somehow in the skies, and this is neither affirmed nor denied in the sayings of Jesus - unless one accepts Sanders' surprising contention that the scenario of the Last Judgement scene in Mt derives from Jesus himself. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it is not unreasonable to assume that Paul is merely carrying on Jesus' teaching. Indeed, Paul appeals to 'the Lord's own teaching' in this connection (1 Thess 4.15). As to his own part, we know only that Jesus rode symbolically on an ass into Jerusalem, in a way which was rightly perceived by his followers to indicate that he was the humble king, or perhaps more exactly that his kingdom was for the poor and neglected.

Apart from this central thrust of Jesus' ministry, Sanders is sceptical about how much we can know about Jesus. He regards the majority of the controversy-stories as the product of disagreement within the Christian communities about legal observance, and of controversy between those who did not observe the Law and those - both within and outside the Church - who regarded it as binding. One of the major difficulties is that Mark at least makes Jesus far too sweeping in his abolition of the requirement to keep the Law; whether his followers must observe the Law was, after all, one of the principal areas of dissension within the early Christian communities. If Jesus had been so definite about the abolition of Jewish legal observances, it is difficult to see that his followers could have gone back on the point and raised it all again. There are difficulties about many of the individual controversy-passages as they stand. For example, when the Pharisees complain at Jesus' disciples plucking ears of corn on the Sabbath, how are we to suppose that the Pharisees tracked them? What were the Pharisees doing in Galilee? If the incident happened in the public eye, were the disciples not near enough to habitations to assuage their hunger some other way? Morton Smith holds that there were no Pharisees in Galilee at this time, and that all the legal controversies are retrojections from controversies between Jew and Christian in the 80s. In any case, argues Sanders in his later book, the disagreements over legal matters certainly would not have led to a violent persecution. He disputes not necessarily the genuineness of the controversy-sayings themselves, but the context into which they are put by the gospel tradition; the sayings may be genuine, he argues, but the contexts were evolved in order to settle problems of legal observance within Christianity.

Sanders' approach solves a real difficulty left by Vermes in his Gospel of Jesus the Jew (1983 - lectures delivered in 1981). It was the great purpose and merit of this book to see Jesus in his Jewish context, at last taking seriously his thorough Jewishness. But this raises the problem of how it is that his Jewishness subsequently became obscured. Vermes points up the clash between the message of Jesus as it is presented in the gospels and the subsequent behaviour of his followers. There is a clash not only between Jesus' declaration that all food is clean and the subsequent tussle about this in the Church, but also between Jesus' attitude to the gentiles (the Syro-Phoenician) and the subsequent disagreements over the mission to the gentiles. How is it possible that Jesus confined his mission territorially almost exclusively to Galilee and Judaea, that he referred to the Syro-Phoenician woman as a kuna/rion (not to be translated hopefully and sweetly as 'housedog', but frankly and brutally as 'dog' - that was how Jews named gentiles), told his disciples to go only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel, and yet the gospels contain also such instructions as the finale of Matthew (undoubtedly his own composition), instructing the disciples to baptise all nations? Vermes' solution is that Jesus saw his mission as being to Israel. He was typical of the charismatic Galilean teachers such as Honi the Circle-Drawer; the stress of his teaching was typical of the teaching of these figures; he emphasised the Fatherhood of God, trust in God and imitation of the holiness of God. It was only after his death that his followers transformed his legacy by introducing four principal changes: they put aside his Jewish exclusiveness, they abandoned the Law, they transferred his present eschatological urgency to the future, and Paul's pessimism about human nature led him to see Jesus' death in the sacrificial terms of vicarious atonement for human sin. Is the Jesus presented in the gospels a mere subsequent construct, a juncture of two different angles of vision, one Jewish and one non-Jewish?

If the more reliable approach is to view the sayings tradition only in function of an angle of vision previously established through interpretation of Jesus' actions, then a new examination is in place. One of the most certain of Jesus' actions is the establishment of a group of twelve (their membership is uncertain, but their number so firmly fixed that they are referred to as 'the Twelve' even when Judas' defection has reduced them to eleven); this must be seen in function of the Jewish hope for the restoration of the 12 tribes of Israel, frequently mentioned in Baruch, Ben Sira, 2 Mc and the inter-testamental literature. From here it is an entirely reasonable step, though understandably one which would not be made without controversy in the early Christian communities, for Jesus' followers to invoke the strand, prominent in so much of the later biblical books and the inter-testamental writings, that at the restoration of Israel in the fullness of time, salvation would flow from Israel to all the nations. Thus the opening to the nations is the logical consequence of Jesus' own teaching, even if he did not himself take that step. On the other hand, Sanders accepts that Mt 8.11-12 is an authentic welcome by Jesus to the gentiles, because it is linked to the widespread imagery of the eschatological banquet (criterion of coherence). But it must not be neglected that Mt places the command to preach to all nations only after the resurrection. It is for this reason that Sanders repeatedly insists that Jesus cannot be expected to have had a plan of campaign fully worked out to the last detail, with consequences neatly pre-arranged and thought through.

This approach has the advantage of making sense also of the development of the attitude to Jesus' passion. Is the Pauline atonement-interpretation simply, as Vermes holds, the product of his own pessimistic view of human nature? Sanders holds that the well-attested sayings at the Last Supper provide sufficient evidence that Jesus was aware of that stream of Jewish thinking which sees persecution and martyrdom as the price of bearing God's message to those who will not accept it. Since the Suffering Servant poems of Deutero-Isaiah and the Maccabean persecution, the idea of the death of God's chosen one being beneficial to others, and the subsequent vindication of his martyrs, is so common in Judaism that the death of Jesus was almost bound to be viewed in this way. Again, Jesus may well not have thought through the sacrificial aspect of his death in the same way and in the same detail as Paul, but he can hardly have been unaware of it.

There are still many decisions to be made in this sphere of Leben-Jesu-Forschung. The method is, however, to begin not by seeking the authenticity of individual sayings and actions, but by establishing an orientation of Jesus' life and ministry by means of one solid pillar to which everything else may adhere with more or less firmness. The work of Sanders on Jesus' attitude to the Temple enables him to fan out into other areas of Jesus' life and ministry. We have illustrated this with regard to the puzzle of the clash of the mission to the gentiles and the sacrificial concept of Jesus' death. Provided that the central pillar is solidly established, this sets up a sort of massive Criterion of Coherence, which gives an a priori probability to sayings and deeds which cohere with it. It leaves large areas in which the customary painstaking work of establishing authenticity of sayings and historicity of actions still needs to be done. There are elements in Sanders' own reconstruction which seem dubious, such as the acceptance of the Matthean Last Judgement scene (typically Matthean, summing up many interests proper to Mt alone, and full of Matthean linguistic characteristics). Nor does he satisfactorily base his insistence that the exact point of scandal in Jesus' reception of sinners was that he accepted them as sinners, without demanding of them that they change their way of life; he too easily removes as secondary passages which counter his view, and claims that since Jesus did not preach repentance to Israel as a nation, he did not preach it at all.

Two areas in particular have not been touched in this essay. Firstly the historicity of the miracle stories must still be researched. There can be no doubt that Jesus worked miracles. Miracles as such are no sign of Jesus' uniqueness: he himself grants that other figures in the Jewish world worked exorcisms, when he was accused of casting out spirits by Beelzebul. Miracles of healing are claimed widely in the hellenistic world (many of Jesus' miracles are parallelled in the inscriptions at Epidaurus, and in the activity of Apoloonius of Tyana, as written up by Philostratus). The miracle of raising the dead has no real parallel in the ancient world; those quoted by Vermes are not fully parallel. Nevertheless, the historicity of many of the miracles may justly be called in question: Lk 7.21 appears to invent them almost casually, and Mt 9.27-31 without a qualm produces a miracle by combination of two others. The raising of the widow's son at Naim may well be a mere imitation of the similar story told of Elijah and Elisha. Boismard plausibly holds that the healing of the ten lepers is Luke's own construct on the basis of the healing of a single leper (using Papyrus Egerton II). Several of the nature miracles are formed in a way to show the fulfilment of scripture, and it is difficult to recover the factual event which underlies the account.

A second area which requires research is the so-called Legenden, such as the Baptism, the Temptations and the Transfiguration. Here the difficulty of recovering the event which underlies these stories, suffused with biblical imagery, is redoubled. Recent historical scholarship has fought shy of these tasks, and yet they cannot simply be dismissed as irrelevant.

Bibliography vast, but useful are

EPSanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (1993)

Luke T Johnson, The Real Jesus

GN Stanton, Gospel Truth? (1993)

RaymondE. Brown, Introduction to the New Testament (1997), Appendix I

R E Brown etc New Jerome Biblical Commentary (1989), article 70

Further Bibliography

Geza Vermes Jesus the Jew (1973),

The Gospel of Jesus the Jew (1983)

Ben Meyer The Aims of Jesus (1979)

S. Neill & T. Wright The Interpretation of the NT (1988)

A E Harvey Jesus and the Constraints of History (1982)

E P Sanders Jesus and Judaism (1985)

Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah (1990)

Sanders & Davies Studying the Synoptic Gospels (1989), Pt 5

Seyoon Kim The 'Son of Man' as the Son of God (1983)

E P Sanders 'The Search for Bedrock in the Jesus Material' Proc. Irish Bibl. Assoc. 7 (1983),

explains why Sanders approaches historicity through Jesus' actions rather than his sayings: they are a more reliable basis, and then sayings which cohere can be accepted

Per 101 e. 1126

M D Hooker 'History, Truth & Gospel', Epworth Review 8 (1981), no 3

the point of the gospel is not brute facts but the message, i.e. facts interpreted

Per 11144 e. 252R H Fuller 'The Historical Jesus, some outstanding issues', Thomist 48 (1984), 368-82

readable survey

Per 26671 d. 147J H Charlesworth 'Research on the Historical Jesus', Proc. Irish Bibl. Assoc. 9 (1985), 19-37

a survey of 5 years, too brief to be much usePer 101 e. 1126J D Crossan 'Materials & Methods in Historical Jesus Research', Forum 4 (1988), 3-34

B D Chilton 'Jesus & the Repentance of EP Sanders', Tyndale Bulletin 39 (1988), 1-18 = S Per

critique of Sanders' view that Jesus did not demand a national repentance

C A Evans 'The Historical Jesus & Christian Faith', Christian Scholars Review 18 (1988) 48-63

Per 1242 d. 472id. 'Authentic Criteria in Life of Jesus Research', ibid. 19 (1989), 6-31

M E Mills 'Jesus of Nazareth in his Jewish Background',Month 52 (1989), 378-83

Per 11132 d. 17, 17*Marcus Borg 'What did Jesus Really Say?' Biblical Research 5 (1989), 18-25

W. Grimm Die Verkuendigung Jesu und Deuterojesaja (1981)

D Polkow 'Method & Criteria for Historical Jesus Research', SBL Seminar Papers 26 (1987)

p. 336-56 very detailed on methods

1. Sanders, in fact, thinks that Jesus despaired on the cross: 'After he had been on the cross for a few hours, he despaired, and cried out that he had been forsaken. This speculation is only one possible explanation' (HFJ, p. 274).